When I first heard that Ke$ha had a writing credit on Britney Spears’ latest single “Till the World Ends”, I thought, “And the student becomes the teacher.” What a coup for Ke$ha to be listed in the same liner notes as “It’s Britney, Bitch” herself. I was reminded of when Madonna and Britney kissed at the 2003 VMAs, which if you can get past the Muffin Bluffin’ exploitation, I’m pretty sure was meant to symbolize some kind of torch-passing. Only that analogy would make more sense if Britney were writing or producing a Ke$ha song, not the other way around.
I think this collaboration is really more of a victory for Britney than for Ke$ha. It might seem like Ke$ha wants to be the new Britney Spears, but I’d argue it’s the other way around. You might think Ke$ha wants to be a pop princess like Britney. But I think Britney wants to be a member of the Parliament of Uzbekistan like Ke$ha.
Britney’s entire career has been about the struggle for control of one’s own life. First, this message was (ironically) a calculated attempt to tap into teen angst to secure the attention of that lucrative demo.
Then, life imitated art. Britney undeniably went her own way, and her star fell a bit because of it. And while we weren’t listening to Britney anymore, we were still watching her: watching her marrying randoms, eating Cheetos, driving with her baby in her lap, shaving her head. For us at home it was a grand spectacle, for Britney Spears it was a real struggle to keep her life under control. She lost custody of her kids. She lost control of her finances; legally relegated to the status of a minor child. Even her private life had to conform to the narrow confines with which the public felt comfortable to engage with Britney Spears.
“Piece of Me” didn’t chart all that well (peaking at #18 on the Hot 100), probably because we didn’t want to be reminded of how gross we were all being with our perverse fascination with Britney’s downfall. Britney’s second go at a comeback, the Circus album and tour, switched up the message to recast Britney’s attention-demanding train wreck qualities as one of her assets as an entertainer. And once again, Britney Spears had value as a pop artist and not just as a fountain of Schadenfreude.
Since “Circus,” Britney’s approach to reclaiming her identity post-breakdown returns to the same tactic she used to shrug her virginal image with “I’m a Slave 4 U”: sex appeal to the power of 100, stripped of all coyness. “If U Seek Amy”, “3″, and “Hold it Against Me” brought us dirty beats and single entendres and sweaty, writhing bodies in the music videos. Which we consumers of pop can never get enough of.
Now, tour revenues and album sales aren’t really a way to rebound from personal rock bottom. They brought Britney Spears the icon that lucrative comeback, but they can’t bring Britney Spears the woman peace in her life. Particularly not when she’s more of a product than an artist.
Which brings us to Ke$ha, and why Britney should want to be more like her. Post-Breakdown Britney primed the stage for Ke$ha’s in-your-face dirtiness. But, at least from my admittedly generous perspective, there’s a lot more going on with Ke$ha than her drunk & dirty persona. Where Britney sometimes looks so hallowed-out you swear you can see the puppeteer’s hand insider her body, Ke$ha has the same confident weirdness that has recently helped make stars of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj.
Legend has it that Ke$ha became “Ke-Dollar Sign-Ha” in response to being shut out from the profits generated by Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” on which she sang (I would like to note the restraint I am exercising here in not putting that word in obnoxious quotation marks) the hook.1 Her very name is an expression of self-possession in the face of an industry that likes to chew up and spit out young women as disposable product.
I don’t see Ke$ha’s writing credits, on her own tracks and now on Britney’s, as some attempt to counteract her drunk mess persona by making her look like a serious professional or artist. Even a tween knows that “I can’t take it take it anymore/never felt like felt like this before” isn’t exactly poetry.
I think Ke$ha’s writing credits are genuine. As in, she’s actually part of the creative process. I know that sounds dubious. Aren’t co-writing credits for pop stars like “executive producer” credits for sitcom stars? Well I guess what I’m saying here is that Ke$ha is the Alan Alda of pop. I mean, listening to “Till the World Ends” makes me feel like I’m four shots deep, and I’m writing this at 8:00AM. Doesn’t it stand to reason that our Perma-Drunk Gutter Prince$$ is legitimately responsible for that?
That being said, I do think that Ke$ha is probably enjoying the legitimacy that comes with a co-writing credit on a Britney Spears song that doesn’t seem to be trading in on Ke$ha’s fame (she’s not on the track or in the video and I haven’t even heard mention of her involvement on the radio). But the real winner here is Britney. By collaborating with Ke$ha, Britney Spears can flirt with the self-driven model for pop stardom that the new wave (Ke$ha, Gaga, Minaj, and as much as I hate to admit it, Katy Perry) has enjoyed. The model that she came to prominence too early (both with respect to time and her own age) to benefit from. The model that maybe wouldn’t exist but for the art-imitates-life-imitates-art cycle of Britney Spears’ own struggles for agency.
It’s a good thing when the student becomes the teacher. Maybe someday soon we’ll get a taste of ฿ritne¥.